[Note: this is the latest entry in a new series of short essays by Environmental Humanities scholars, writers, and activsts on the theme “Backyards”]
a. Social Science Fiction as Method
In Four Futures: Life After Capitalism, Peter Frase distinguishes between the genre of “futurism” and what he names “social science fiction.” Futurism strives to directly predict the future, “obscuring its inherent uncertainty and contingency” (26). Social science fiction, by contrast, mixes the imaginative capacity of science fiction to speculate about a world that might be, with the insights of social science about how actual lived experience is shaped by structural forces such as the political economy and social class. “To put it another way,” Frase writes, “it is always more interesting to read an account that derives the general from the particular (social theory) or the particular from the general (science fiction), rather than attempting to go from the general to the general (futurism) or the particular to the particular (conspiracism)” (27).
The project of the faculty and participants in this year’s Banff Research in Culture (BRiC) was to collectively think about the future from the particular to the general. BRiC is a themed research residency that brings together artists and researchers for several weeks at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity. This year’s theme was “2067,” a date in the near future that was posed as a challenge to the liberal and nationalist self-certainties we knew would circulate during Canada’s 150th anniversary year. The affective fantasies and lived limits that shape our lives are the launchpad from which we speculate about the future-that-is-coming-to-be. We believe that to conjecture about the future necessitates theorizing the present, with all the blindness and ignorance that is constitutive of that attempt.
And so, in this post, we choose to offer up scenes that emerge from our own experiences as city dwellers, as professors, and as parents and children. From our similar subjectivities as first-generation academics, we tell some stories about the disconnect between our habits and desires. It is in telling stories that we create myths, myths that shape our perceptions and our praxis, myths that animate the reshaping and reimagining of political possibilities, both for the present and futures still to come.
b. Backyards (or, water, energy, housing, dreams, collectivity…)
Imre: I decide to get out of the house and go for a walk. It’s Sunday, late afternoon. Patches of thick clouds threaten rain. But they’re high enough, luckily, to let the Rockies peak over the horizon and into the suburb my mother calls home.
Calgary, Alberta is a city of suburbs. They ring every North American city, but not every city has them so nakedly on display as here on the bald, dry Prairies. The population density of Calgary is about one-third that of Toronto, one fourteenth that of Paris. Despite hopes that Calgary might grow denser over time, expectations are that 80% of growth over the next 20 to 30 years will be via suburban expansion on what is Treaty 7 territory. Where my mother lives the classic Canadian suburban houses jut their cavernous garages in front of the actual house, making it clear that automobiles have primacy here.
The original suburb, Levittown, New York, is only 70 years old this year. It was designed to manage the social and political problem of returning veterans in need of homes. The suburb was also a racist project, intended to create all white communities, repeating in a new form the geographies of privilege and privatism long connected to property ownership. Today, in an era in which the demands they make on the environment are understood to be enormous and indefensible, suburbs are still burgeoning, especially in cities with poor transit service, and large immigrant populations.
I cut down side streets and through alleys until I reach one of the redeeming features of these newer suburbs, which is a network of snaking bike and walking paths that lead to the Bow or Elbow River. The path closest to my mother’s home is in a long green space that takes the place of some of the alleyways. There isn’t much to it—a small playground here, small trees plopped down there—and normally I hurry through these spaces until I can reach the river. Today, I slow down, drawn to the backyards I pass by.
The suburban backyard is a landscape of dreams of leisure and community, of family and nature. Sometimes people move to the suburbs due to the escalating costs of urban cores, or because they want a bigger space to raise their children. They seldom move because they want to mow the lawn; more often they move because of the promise of outside space that belongs to them and them alone. Backyards are small, private spaces dense with fantasies of the good life.
Wood slat or chain link fences separate the Calgary backyards. The artifice of these yards is as palpable as that of the parks. The grass (which is, by the way, the most widespread crop in the U.S. after maize and wheat) is neatly mowed. One after another, row-by-row, these backyards corral individuals and families into discrete pockets of activity and belonging. I occasionally see people in their yards, but for the most part they’re empty. The path is empty, too—no cyclists, no joggers.
Will backyards continue, in the future, to define a certain vision of the good life?
Will backyards continue, in the future, to define a certain vision of the good life? In Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, Yuval Noah Harari writes: “In the suburbs of Doha and Dubai, middle-class families pride themselves on their lawns. If it were not for the white robes and black hijabs, you could easily think you were in the Midwest rather than the Middle East” (64). Science fiction films and novels rarely imagine the future of backyards (there are no backyards in Blade Runner 2049, and apparently, in its vision of Los Angeles, there never were any). Perhaps they are such banal spaces that writers and directors jettison them as extraneous to the future (though sometimes, as in Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, they become necessary sites of cultivation and survival). But this is a mistake. A failure to politicize backyards is a failure to contend with some of the most powerful affective forces that animate social life today.
c. Youth and Property
Eva-Lynn: My son Sebastian stays a night with Imre’s mother. He wakes up in the morning to the birds chirping loudly outside his window. No cars. No people walking by. He drinks a cup of coffee on the back deck, looking out over the grass, the cherry tree, and the raspberry bushes. “Wow, this is really nice,” he says. “Who knew?”
Our children have little experience of the suburban spaces in which Imre and I grew up. They were raised in cities, and have had the benefits of travel to different cities and a university education. These young men are acutely aware of their privileged upbringings, and yet are overwhelmingly anxious about what they will do when they graduate with their liberal arts degrees, where they will find work, and where they will be able to afford to live.
Whenever Sebastian comes to Toronto from Montreal, he says that he likes the city and feels at home. The problem is, he doesn’t have a home there. I sold the only one he had. His dad and I divorced, and I couldn’t afford to maintain our dilapidated house, with squirrels in the roof and raccoons perched in the tall trees in the overgrown backyard. It was in the desirable west end, near Dufferin Grove, a neighbourhood that is known as “more hippie than hipster.” Yet my kids’ geographical centre was not the predominantly white farmer’s market and park, but the large apartment complex across the street from our house. It may have detracted from the residential street feel of the rest of the neighbourhood, but Sebastian and his little brother took advantage of the flat mown grass to play soccer with the Tamil, Tibetan, Chinese, Somalian, Mexican, and Syrian kids that lived there. In the summer, women sat on the benches and chatted, pushing strollers back and forth to quiet their babies. It was an open urban yard, a place for the residents, crowded in their rental units, to congregate. Recently I asked Sebastian what happened to Shiv and Shradup, two of his friends from the buildings. The first still lives there, but the second has moved to the suburbs of Mississauga.
Our house went for well over asking in the crazy Toronto real estate market. In an instant, my debts were erased. I had money for university for the boys, and for a down payment. Imre and I bought into a 12-unit townhouse development built on top of a mid-century social services building. That space was retrofitted to house two start-up companies, full of tech guys and foosball tables. We live where the provincially funded daycare used to be. After we’d moved in, a Portuguese hydro guy came to check our meter, and said that he had rolled his trike in what was now our living room.
It’s a beautiful condo, but it doesn’t work as a space to live when the three boys are back in Toronto. Last summer Sebastian came for two weeks and slept in a tent on the rooftop terrace. When he left, he said, “Thanks for having me, Mom.”
I said, “You don’t have to say thank you, this is your home too!”
Neither of us is sure that it is, though. He has one drawer where he leaves an extra pair of jeans and some t-shirts. That’s it. Everything else he owns is in his shared rental house in Montreal. So what’s he going to do when he graduates next year? Where is he going to live?
Imre and I both left home to go to university, and never went back. Neither of us thinks that kids should live with their parents after they leave home. I think that maybe we don’t get it. Don’t get what it is to be a young adult in a city like Toronto, where the rental market is small and the prices unaffordable (the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in the second quarter of 2017 was $1,861). Don’t get what it is to graduate with a liberal arts degree instead of Commerce or Business. Don’t get how culturally specific and privileged our assumptions are. Don’t get how lonely we will be once the youngest leaves.
If Sebastian feels at home in a city that he can’t afford, where do we feel at home? We’ve always thought of ourselves as city people, thrilled by the chaotic energy of Mexico City or Beijing. We believe in density, in the artistic and creative energies let loose by cosmopolitan urban modernity (even if we don’t believe in Richard Florida’s vision of the creative economy). Yet the gentrification of Toronto leaves us unsure of whether we really are urban—with dense condo development coming at the expense of rental units, community housing, and social services; with the growth of entrepreneurial hubs and start-ups and hipster shops; with immigrants moving to the suburbs, with its crummy infrastructure and woeful public transit.
We kid ourselves that what we have is what we deserve.
We don’t understand where the young people that frequent these places get their money, though we know that the twenty-somethings living in our building are subsidized by their parents. The young adults that we know—PhD students, sessional instructors, new parents, recent graduates—are moving to Hamilton or other smaller cities, trying to buy into those markets before they, too, hyper inflate.
Buying—a city like Toronto is about private property. We middle-class professionals imagine the need to own the place that we live in, and worry that our children won’t be able to. If we don’t own it—and we don’t because the bank does with the size of our mortgages nowadays—someone else does. We seem to accept that, despite crowding, increased disparity between rich and poor, and the winnowing out of working youth in the downtown core, that it’s ok to have, for instance, empty storefronts. In our neighbourhood, businesses are forced out because of the high property costs, and then the places stay empty for months or even years. What if the city council didn’t allow this, if those spaces were immediately turned into something public? Why do we imagine that a storefront needs to continue to be used only for retail? In a city with a long winter, where are the indoor spaces to congregate that don’t entail spending money?
All of us property owners: we kid ourselves that what we have is what we deserve.
Living in our posh beautiful condo, Imre and I indulge a new fantasy, one that entails a return to the more suburban spaces of our own childhoods. We visit the town of Guelph, and are delighted by the public spaces filled with dogs and kids and people our age. We imagine having what we had wanted to avoid by buying a condo: a sprawling house with a backyard for the dog, space for friends to spend the weekend, and a basement apartment in case one of the boys needed a place to live for a year or two. The move away from the backyard finds us craving one again, to our own great surprise.
d. Towards New Mythologies of Backyards
“Myth does not deny things,” Roland Barthes’s tells us at the end of Mythologies in “Myth Today.” “On the contrary, its function is to talk about them” (143). The work of myth is to take abstract nouns—nouns like nation, justice, democracy and the individual at the centre of the debates that comprise the political—and to try to render them concrete. From being a violent, troubling invention of history, the nation, for instance, becomes something to which marginalized groups aspire, since it is imagined as the proper (and only) form for collective belonging. Barthes writes: “A conjuring trick has taken place; [myth] has turned reality inside out, it has emptied it of history and has filled it with nature, it has removed from things their human meaning so as to make them signify a human insignificance” (142-143). Put bluntly, “myth is depoliticized speech” (143)—speech that drains the political from concepts, which are then re-entered into politics as nature instead of history.
The Right is expert at the operations of myth, nudging and nuancing it to achieve its aims and outcomes. The Right has developed a deep and well-rehearsed vocabulary of myth, through which it generates appeals to common sense, produces proverbs and constructs apparently unalterable hierarchies. Like parents who respond, “Just because, that’s why!”, the Right knows how to employ tautology to render social constructions as natural givens. Barthes describes Right-wing myth as “essential; well-fed, sleek, expansive, garrulous, it invents itself ceaselessly. It takes hold of everything, all aspects of the law, or morality, of aesthetics, of diplomacy, of household equipment, of Literature, of entertainment” (148).
What about the Left? The Left’s task has always been to show how language shapes the world, and to reveal the processes by which depoliticized speech operates to create a specific, jaundiced view of social and political structures. If myth is depoliticized language, then the Left adopts an opposite mode. But this critical task has a limit. Because of how it has configured itself in relation to myth, the Left is clumsy at making anything like a myth of its own; it can’t easily “fabulize,” remaining “stiff and literal” when it tries to generate myth in response to the Right. As Barthes puts it, “left-wing myth is inessential”:
the objects which it takes hold of are rare—only a few political notions—unless it has itself recourse to the whole repertoire of the bourgeois myths. Left-wing myth never reaches the immense field of human relationships, the very vast surface of ‘insignificant’ ideology. Everyday life is inaccessible to it: in bourgeois society, there are no ‘Left-wing’ myths concerning marriage, cooking, the home, the theatre, the law, morality, etc. Then, it is an incidental myth, its use is not part of a strategy, as is the case with bourgeois myth, but only of a tactics, or, at worst, of a deviation; if it occurs, it is as a myth suited to a convenience, not to a necessity. (147)
Barthes characterizes the Left as, at best, a kind of anti-Right, as dependent on the ideas of the Right even as it rejects them. Much of what constitutes Left politics is a softened myth of the Right (certain variants of socialism) or something akin to a left-libertarianism whose energy comes from a rejection of all that is myth. What is missing on the Left is myth as strategy or tactic. The Left cannot but see myth as artificial, constituted and so as something that has to be taken apart each and every time it is encountered.
We believe that Left-myths need to be created that are as powerful as those of the Right. The first step towards imagining them is to recognize the myths that already hold a powerful grip on us. To understand their power is to be able to create new myths that are convinced of the truths they profess, while yet holding open the critical desire to challenge myth. Might it be possible to generate a myth as powerful as that of the backyard and of property? A myth of a commons and a collectivity that can counteract the hold that this space has on our sense of what is safe, normal, and natural? This is a more deeply political act than one might have ever imagined.
Imre Szeman is co-editor of Energy Humanities: An Anthology (2017) and Fueling Culture: 101 Words for Energy and Environment (2017). On Petrocultures, a collection of his recent work, will be published in 2018.
Eva-Lynn Jagoe is author of The End of the World as They Knew It (2008) and Take Her, She’s Yours (forthcoming). She is associate professor of comparative literature and Latin American studies at the University of Toronto.
Butler, Octavia. Parable of the Sower. New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2000.
Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. Trans. Annette Lavers. New York: The Noonday Press, 1972.
Frase, Peter. Four Futures: Life After Capitalism. New York: Verso, 2016.
Harari, Yuval Noah. Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. Toronto: Signal, 2016.